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Is the 30-Hour Week Program
a “Dream”?

(14 March 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 11, 14 March 1949, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Walter Reuther recently pooh- poohed the program of the 30-hour week at 10 hours pay as “idealistic and a dream at this time.” Thus, the head of the CIO United Auto Workers dismisses today a program which his union, along with most other unions, had advanced some ten years ago as the immediate answer to unemployment. Why is this decade-old program a “dream” now?

Certainly, it cannot be claimed that unemployment is no longer a menace. The U.S. Census Bureau on Mar. 4 reported that the number of jobless nationally rose by 550,000 last month to a 7-year peak of 3,231,000. The unemployment compensation offices in Reuther’s own state, Michigan, are being besieged by thousands of laid-off auto workers. The trend is shown by the announcement on Mar. 2 that the Hudson Motor Car company was laying off indefinitely, affective Mar. 7, 4,500 workers in line with a 17% cut in production.

Reuther is undoubtedly aware of the threat of mass unemployment. This dismissal of labor’s key programmatic answer to this problem must be taken then as an attack on the soundness of the demand or its realizability. What arguments can he raise? Only that the employers “can’t afford” this program or that organized labor is too weak to achieve it.

A Continuous Struggle

The struggle for the shorter work-week and work-day at higher pay has been continuous from the earliest beginnings of the labor movement. At every stage of this struggle, the capitalists and their apologists have fought against shorter hours on the grounds that they couldn’t afford it, that it would “ruin” them. “More production” was their cry, even when millions walked the streets – and by that they meant more speed-up, more output from each worker for the same or less pay.

A century ago, the capitalists determined the “normal” work day by the extreme limit of physical endurance – anywhere from 12 to 18 hours daily. And if the capitalist didn’t work their wage-slaves seven days a week it was because, as they claimed, even the Lord had to rest from His labors on the seventh day and they wanted to follow Him in all His ways.

Karl Marx, in Capital, his scientific analysis of the laws of capitalist development, devoted a special section to a detailed description of the struggle of the English working class to win the 10-hour day during the first six decades of the 19th century. He told of the extension of this struggle to America, citing the resolution of the General Congress of Labor in Baltimore, Aug. 16, 1866:

“The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union.”

The First Necessity

Twenty years later, the American labor, movement made a great leap forward in the historic 1886 strike struggles that led to the eight-hour day. Those pioneer fighters of American labor did not heed the Reuthers of their day who claimed that the eight- hour day was “idealistic” and a “dream.” Nor did they heed the capitalists’ complaint that the eight-hour day would be the “ruination” of the economy.

A half-century later the rising industrial union movement of the CIO continued the battle for the shorter work week and won the establishment of the legal 40-hour week under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Was that battle “idealistic” or a “dream”?

The reduction of the work week and work day has been accompanied by ever increasing labor productivity. Since 1940 alone, the average worker in this country has increased his hourly output 25%. But his real wages, relative to output, have declined 20%. It is this widening gap between wages and output that is once more leading to “over-production,” the glut of goods that cannot be sold, and to unemployment.

When Reuther says that the program of the 30-hour week at 40-hours pay is a “dream” he really means that it can’t be secured without a real fight. But if the weak, inexperienced labor movement of 1886 could win the eight-hour day, if the young and far smaller CIO of 1936 and 1937 could triumph in the fight for the 40-hour week, then today’s giant and tested labor movement can achieve the 30-hour week at 40 hours pay – if it fights for it.

Outcome Rests With Us

The tremendous increase in productivity and the approaching crisis of “over-production” have once more put the issue of the shorter work week on the order of the day. The outcome rests with organized labor and its will to fight. For, as Marx wrote over 75 years ago, “the determination of what is a working day [or a working week] presents itself as the result of a struggle between collective capital, that is, the class of capitalists, and collective labor, that is, the working class.”

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